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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Asa and the culture wars

by John Brummett | March 30, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.

Political alienation and culture wars rage. So, it came to pass that there was social media chatter before and during the basketball game between Arkansas and Oral Roberts.

Some people were saying on Twitter that they hoped Arkansas lost because it was a state that had just enacted discriminatory legislation against the LGBTQ community. Others were responding that Oral Roberts University was no vehicle for hating on Arkansas, considering that the namesake was a raging homophobe and the current student handbook presumes to bar same-sex activity.

In the end, it was an excellent ballgame.

The dialogue was a microcosm of a broader dynamic Gov. Asa Hutchinson seems to count on.

I asked him over the weekend if he was concerned that his six-year emphasis on modernizing the state's economy had been undercut by his being overrun by an uncontrollable right-wing Legislature sending him culture-war bills he'd managed to stop in years past. These bills could prove damaging to the state's image to would-be modern employers who are committed to diversity and inclusion.

Once these bills got to his office, Hutchinson couldn't stop them because his vetoes can be overridden by a simple majority vote, and this Legislature shows little deference to him. But he could have vetoed them on principle anyway, or let them become law without his signature. He didn't have to sign them, except that he seems to seek continued Republican viability. So, he signed them in the two most-recent cases.

One bill banned something that isn't happening, meaning transgender girls outrunning everyone in track meets. It could be handled if happening by Arkansas Activities Association regulation and any litigation ensuing.

The other allows physicians to cite religious or moral reasons to decline to provide medical care. That could mean refusing to provide care for a transgender person. It could mean declining to provide care to a Donald Trump supporter, clearly a moral position, though that would be a good way for a doctor to go broke in Arkansas.

In both bills, the microscopically small-minded point is to waste legislative time and ink on matters addressing no legitimate public-policy need, but merely allowing pseudo-religious "Christian nationalists" to make themselves feel powerful by abusing their offices to pick on people they don't like or approve of or with whom they disagree.

Hutchinson has said the track-meet bill addresses pre-emptively a conceivable and legitimate concern. He has said the no-treat option for doctors has exceptions for emergencies and couldn't be applied on a basis discriminating against groups.

In other words, he is saying he has managed to come up with rationalizations for signing them.

So, back to my question on whether the governor was concerned his long and diligent attention to modern economic consideration was being undercut: Hutchinson replied without addressing my characterization of his being helplessly overrun by an uncontrollably extreme Legislature. He said instead that these bills weren't all that conspicuous, or will prove not to be as we go along.

He said many states have conscientious exceptions for medical services (most are for abortion alone). He said Tennessee had just passed a transgender-girl athletic bill and measures were pending widely elsewhere.

Forgive me for continuing to rephrase the governor's positions, which could well lead him to stop answering my questions in the first place. But I see a contextual imperative.

In that regard, what the governor is saying is that there's a raging red-state, Trump-allegiant section of the country out there, and Arkansas is but a part of it, and we will not be alone in the occasional enactment of these sorts of laws.

Modern progressive businesses would have to boycott a bunch of them, not just us, presumably.

People may want to root against the Razorbacks, but then they'll find out Oral Roberts is no better, or worse. You see.

But the governor, being an honorable and thoughtful man along with one given to political expedience, did acknowledge as follows: "I am concerned about the overall impression of this session and I hope we can focus attention on the economic, education and reform successes that are being accomplished."

I am not sure what those successes are, but I suspect that the governor's communications staff can prepare nice, thick packets for all of us.

In the meantime, the governor's centerpiece hate-crimes bill seems dead, and I continue to be impressed with the evolving sensibilities of Sen. Jim Hendren, who, in case you haven't heard, is Hutchinson's nephew.

The newborn independent and founder of Common Ground Arkansas tweeted after the dramatic end of the Arkansas-Oral Roberts game: "We should have extended March Madness instead of the legislative session."


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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